Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)




Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is a man who's been wronged. After serving a 5 year sentence at San Quentin for a crime he didn't commit, the former cop is now free. Waiting for him at the gate is his old partner Dan (William Demarest) who sticks with him through thick and thin, and his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru), a lounge singer who gave into temptation while her husband was away. But Steve can't be bothered with dealing with his failed marriage. He's on a mission to track down the one man responsible for putting him in the slammer: Vic Damato (Edward G. Robinson). He got a hot tip from Frank Ragoni about who set him up and now Ragoni is missing. All fingers point to Damato who leads a mob syndicate that terrorizes the Italian fishing community of San Francisco. He's drunk with power and will kill anyone who gets in his way, even one of his own. He rules his team with an iron fist. First there's his number one man, Joe (Paul Stewart), who will do anything Damato tells him to but pulls away when he starts a romance with former screen star Kay (Fay Wray). Then there's Hammy (Stanley Adams), a blood thirsty mobster who is a little too eager to please, Damato's naive nephew Mario (Perry Lopez) and his man on the inside, dirty cop Detective Connors (Peter Hansen). Steve must make his way through web of shady characters to uncover the truth and to bring down Damato once and for all.

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) is a fascinating noir, filmed in Cinemascope and Warner Color by with plenty of on-location shooting in the city by the bay. San Francisco serves as the beautiful backdrop for a dark tale of disturbed characters. Viewers will see shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf and the San Francisco, Ghirardelli Square, the Embarcadero and the iconic hills of San Francisco. Anyone familiar with the city will find plenty of recognizable scenery.

Based on the novel The Darkest Hour by William P. McGivern, Hell on Frisco Bay was adapted by screenwriters Sydney Boehm and Martin Rackin for Warner Bros. McGivern also wrote The Big Heat which is one of my favorite Noirs and one of the best films Fritz Lang made during his time in Hollywood. It was directed by Frank Tuttle who worked with Alan Ladd on This Gun for Hire (1942). Ladd, who also served as an uncredited producer through his company Jaguar Productions, hired Tuttle and other colleagues from his Paramount days including William Demarest, Paul Stewart and Anthony Caruso.

This Noir boasts a cast of characters portrayed by some of the best in the business. Edward G. Robinson playing a heartless mobster is no stretch as he had been playing such characters for many years. Alan Ladd looks worse for wear but his performance as Steve begs for the audience's sympathy but also holds them at a distance. I was quite taken with Paul Stewart's nuanced performance as Damato's reluctant sidekick Joe. He's not an actor I'm all that familiar with but this film definitely brought him to my attention. Fay Wray has an important but small role as a former actress who tries to protect her gangster boyfriend. I wish Joanne Dru and William Demarest had more to do in the film. They really just serve as the protagonist's counter parts. Starlet Jayne Mansfield has a bit role as the girl Perry Lopez dances with at Damato's night club. A young Rod Taylor, billed as Rodney Taylor, has a small role as one of Damato's thugs. His fight seen with Alan Ladd isn't quite believable but it's still fun to see Taylor in what was his fourth movie. In fact Ladd and Robinson have a big action-packed scene in San Francisco Bay that is also not quite believable. But with the help of stunt men and some studio footage, it works.



Hell on Frisco Bay is a gorgeous movie. Where it lacks in story telling it makes up for in stunning visuals and dramatic music by Max Steiner. This movie makes me long for a time when you could dress up, go to a classy lounge, have a drink and hear a good song or two. I always forget how richly visual 1950s movies are until I watch a good one and am reminded of this fact. Because of the gorgeous color cinematography, the film felt less like a Noir and more like a 1950s drama. I don't think this hurts the film at all. It makes it more of a hybrid.




Hell on Frisco Bay is available on Blu-Ray and DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection. According to their recent podcast Hard Lessons this is the first time this film has been available either on DVD or Blu-Ray format. The film has been remastered from the original camera negative at 4k. You can buy the DVD and Blu-Ray at the WB Shop. Using my buy links helps support this site. Thanks!


Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) to review!

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